Ask a construction company today whether they are using lean production methods, and many of them will say yes. But chances are that their definition of “lean” doesn’t have much in common with what the manufacturing industry is doing.
“When you start getting into the details, AEC companies are nowhere close to what we’re seeing in manufacturing. So we have to ask ourselves why,” says Patrick Mays, Vice President of Strategy at Dassault Systèmes.
Mays was one of the keynote speakers at TECHNIA’s seminar on digitalization and lean construction in Stockholm in September, aimed at helping accelerate smarter production in the industry. And Mays said there are several reasons why the AEC industry has lagged behind when it comes to using lean production.
“It’s a very disconnected process. I think you have to start with the fact that buildings are attached to the ground. And that has two significant implications,” Mays said.
One is the fact that builders have to rely on local workers and suppliers, meaning their partners usually change from project to project. The second is that different countries or areas have different regulations depending on the local hazards – for example, hurricanes in Miami and earthquakes in California.
“We see lean in manufacturing being successful because you have a small number of big players, who have a big control over the supply chain,” says Mays. “In construction, it’s the other way around. You’re relying on local resources and local relationships, and so it’s very hard. With every building you do, it’s with a different architect, a different plumber, a different engineer. So there is no continuity for them to put in place these practices. The whole delivery method runs against what we encourage with lean delivery.”
According to Mays, there are three major obstacles for the AEC industry that must be overcome before companies can truly do lean construction.
One is to eliminate the huge amount of duplicated documentation that gets produced because of a lack of coordination between different partners involved on a project. The second is to work with modular delivery where more work is being done away from the construction site, either at a factory or a nearby location. And the third is to find a way of adapting the work processes already used in manufacturing.
One solution is for the industry to shift to a “design-build-operate” model, where one company handles the entire project from the design stage to maintenance of the finish building – similar to a car manufacturer.
But in order to work in that manner, companies also need the right tools. And that’s where 3D modelling, process simulation and PLM systems come in.
“Just as the construction industry doesn’t have a clear understanding of lean compared to manufacturing, I don’t think they understand PLM either,” Mays said. “And as builders get into modular and off-site, suddenly they’re beginning to get into the world of manufacturing. And then they need learn what a PLM system is.”
Today builders use traditional BIM software mostly to visualize the finished project and to produce 2D documents and drawings. With Dassault’s 3DEXPERIENCE, they can do everything from virtual designs to detailing and simulating the construction sequence.
“With DELMIA for instance, you can do a series of simulations to find the best way of doing a project: This is how many trucks can arrive, this is how many cranes I need, this is how many workers I need on a floor, and this is how those workers can do their job safely,” Mays said. “Without that precise information, what you’re seeing at construction sites everywhere now is that you’ll have stacks of materials or tools that have been delivered and are just sitting there until it’s time to do the work. And they may be sitting there for days or for weeks. That’s not what you see at a factory. It’s not going to operate efficiently that way. So without detailed simulation and without an execution system, you’re never going to have real lean construction.”
Some companies, like Canada-based CadMakers Virtual Construction, are already changing the game with the help of detailed computer simulations, 3D models and automatization tools. And according to Mays, this is the future of the industry.
“It’s good to see construction companies and engineering companies starting to work together with these kinds of tools. When the next recession hits, those are going to be the companies that survive,” Mays said. “Because we can’t keep building buildings with 30 to 35 percent waste, which is pretty common in the industry. When you do this kind of precise planning, you eliminate a huge portion of that waste. I think when we prove that we can do that consistently, that will become the standard that everyone is going to look to.”